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Column: Overcoming failure and the little-known origin of Silly Putty

Like a ball of Silly Putty, we should allow our past experiences to mold us into the kind of person who can accept moments of failure and bounce right back.

Like a ball of Silly Putty, we should allow our past experiences to mold us into the kind of person who can accept moments of failure and bounce right back.

It was 1943 and World War II was raging. The U.S. industry was at the peak of a massive mobilization effort to support military troops overseas. There was an acute shortage of natural rubber, a compound vital to the success of the war.

Scientist James Wright and his team were working around the clock in a GE research lab trying to develop new silicone “hard rubbers.” After a year of research and development Wright made a mistake. During one experiment he and his team misidentified a substance while mixing a combination of chemical compounds. The resulting substance was deemed a failure. Rather than a sturdy hard rubber, the substance was gooey and seemingly useless.

Frustrated, Wright threw the goop onto the floor and to his surprise, it bounced right back up at him. This was the birth of what would become Silly Putty, a pliable, bouncy clay-like material that would go on to become one of the most popular toys of all time.

We can learn a lot from Silly Putty

We all make mistakes. We will all face failure. But I believe one of the often-overlooked principles of success is the ability to recognize the value of our failures. Whether it’s a test at school, a job interview or a relationship, self-forgiveness and a willingness to learn and move on are essential elements of success. Sometimes we beat ourselves up far too much and allow failure to wrap around our necks like a snake.

Like a ball of Silly Putty, we should allow our past experiences to mold us into the kind of person who can accept moments of failure and bounce right back. We must believe that all things can be for our good.

I remember as a young man reading about Joseph of the Old Testament with his coat of many colors, and about how his jealous brothers sold him into Egypt as a slave. Referring to Joseph, I found this quote from religion author Hartman Rector Jr., who coincidentally was serving in the Navy during this same period of 1943. Rector spent 26 years as a Navy pilot and was intimately acquainted with success and failure. He said:

“The ability to turn everything into something good appears to be a godly characteristic... Joseph, although a slave and wholly undeserving of this fate, nevertheless remained faithful to the Lord and continued to live the commandments and made something very good of his degrading circumstances. People like this cannot be defeated.”

Wright and his team ultimately developed a super-durable silicone compound that was used to make gaskets on GE’s airplane turbosuperchargers and Navy searchlights.



Richard Haddad is Director of News & Digital Content for Western News&Info, Inc., the parent company of The Daily Courier. This column originally appeared as a blog entry on dCourier.com and contains information used with permission of the General Electric Company.